Letter From The Editor - Issue 68 - April 2019

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  Writing Advice by Mette Ivie Harrison
November 2017

Character Sketches

The first thing I do with many books is write a character sketch. This sometimes takes the form of the first few pages of a first draft. It can also take the form of me doing some pre-writing about the character, before I have any idea what events will happen in the book. Here are some of the things I want to know about my characters:

  1. Age/Gender

  2. Important relationships

  3. Backstory

  4. Flaws/Virtues

  5. What do they want? (What do they really want?)

I don’t try to write an entire page of information about a character, including horoscope sign or birthdate, most embarrassing moment, or anything else. This isn’t a complete list of all the information I will need to know about this character in order to write a whole novel. It’s just me trying to get to know my character as if we were meeting for the first time. Yes, some of this information might be superficial. But it’s information that the reader will also want to know at the beginning of a book.

Age and gender are things most people expect to be told in the first page of a novel. If you’re deliberately withholding that information, there should be a good reason for it. And that reason should not be that you want the reader to wonder. (A good reason might be if the character is transgender or gender non-conforming, or lives in a world in which gender is different than it is on our world). Age and gender are also things that will greatly influence how a character sees the world.

I add information to this character sketch as I continue to write and find out more about my character. I highly recommend that you keep this sketch someplace easy to find because it will be useful all along the editing stage, so you don’t end up wondering in the final draft if the character has blue eyes or green, or if this character was born in October or November.

Relationships is the second thing on the list for me because in order to know a character, I need to know what their most important relationships are. Do they think of themselves primarily as a parent? A child? A religious leader? A businessperson? I think the best way to show this to the reader is in dialog with another character, but there are exceptions. If you have a character who has very few relationships, this is also very telling. Why would this be the case? If they have many relationships, are any of them deep?

Next is backstory. Sometimes you are going to be writing backstory only for yourself. Not all of a character’s backstory will come up in a novel. You want to be wary of boring the reader with too much telling. If you want to do backstory, consider telling it in scene, being careful to move in and out of pluperfect past tense in a way that marks it clearly for the reader with some other words like, “Five years ago” or “Now back in the present.” What was growing up like for this character? Single mother? Poor? Privileged? Religious? What were some of the foundational moments for setting character? Again, don’t assume you need to tell all of these to the reader, but they will help you as the writer figure out voice and the character arc (where the character begins and ends).

Consider the character’s flaws and virtues. Sometimes we think of these as two separate things and they aren’t always. One of the things I discovered in my thirties was that a bunch of my character traits which I had previously assumed were all good, had a negative side in certain situations. I also realized that with people around me, I saw good and bad traits turn over as I considered them more carefully. For example, I’m a list-maker and I throw myself headlong into tasks. This always seemed like a good thing to me. It certainly built me an impressive resume. But it has a negative side in that I’m so focused on things that I sometimes forget relationships. I’ve seen the same thing in people who appear to be slow-moving or even procrastinators. It turns out they are thinking about something else that isn’t as readily apparent.

The fifth item on this list is a way of going a level deeper. What a character thinks they want (to get a job) is often not what they REALLY want (validation from parents). Part of the process of development for the character is coming to realize what they really want after they’ve been miserably unsuccessful (or sometimes miserably successful) at getting what they think they want. If you have a character, and say this character wants to save the world, or to find the key to the tomb, or to learn how to use a sword well, I’d say that’s fine. That’s the beginning of your story, but go a little deeper, because that’s the outer journey. There’s also an inner journey that the character is often not aware of, but which you the author are manipulating. That’s the journey about what the character really wants.

Some of my favorite characters are ones who are deeply conflicted about what they want. Think, of Jimmy McGill in the TV show “Better Call Saul” (which I highly recommend if you haven’t watched it—give it five episodes to get going). What does Jimmy want most? Well, he wants to get his brother’s approval. This is an impossible goal. Much of the television show is about the fact that his brother will never, ever approve of him. His brother has set ideas and is basically impossible of changing. So that would be bad enough. A good character arc for Jimmy might be learning to accept that his brother will never approve of him—and then moving on with his life.

Unfortunately, Jimmy’s other deep want is to be his own man. This is in direct contradiction to his desire to get his brother’s approval. And it takes him in a completely different direction. On the one hand, Jimmy gets a job with a “real” firm as a “real” partner, just like his brother has. But he can’t be happy there. It isn’t in his constitution to do what other people tell him to do. So the plot of the show is about the self-destructive tendencies that Jimmy has, bouncing back and forth between his two desires.

Jimmy can’t ever be happy. He has happy moments, but the contradiction in his heart will always pull him in two directions at the same time. This is what makes him tragic in my opinion (I’m aware that this isn’t the Aristotelean definition of tragedy).

Think about your characters. Is any of them like Jimmy? Do you want to write a character like Jimmy? Then think of what your character truly wants and build in a contradiction that can never be resolved.

Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison

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